No. 990 - Hobart - St Mary's Cathedral (Part 1) - "The Wild Vines of Tasmania"

The opening of Hobart’s St Mary’s Cathedral in 1881 brought an end to a 40 year saga that had begun in 1841 when an attempt was first made to build a new church at “Mount Carmel” on Harrington Street. This article traces the story of early efforts to build St Mary’s, Hobart’s third Catholic church and the city’s first Catholic cathedral.

The appointment of Father John Joseph Therry as Vicar-General of Tasmania in 1839 resulted in the construction of St Joseph’s, the oldest Catholic Church in Hobart. Therry was an ambitious church builder but his incautious handling of finances became the cause of considerable controversy. This was to put a brake on Therry’s attempt to build a church on Harrington Street, previously the site of St Virgil’s Chapel, Tasmania’s first Catholic church. [see No. 944].

A month before St Joseph’s was completed, construction began on St Mary’s with the ceremonial laying of the church’s foundation stone taking place on November 14, 1841. The ceremony was “one of the most imposing public events” to have taken place in the colony. The Colonial Times reported:

“On Sunday the ceremony of laying the first stone of the new Catholic Church of St. Mary, on Mount Carmel, took place, between the hours of one and three; the stone had been deposited on the previous afternoon by the Rev. Mr. Therry, the Vicar General, but Sunday being the festival of the patroness Saint of the Church, the grand ceremony was reserved for that day. A little before two o'clock the procession set off, from the temporary chapel in Liverpool-street, and proceeded along Elizabeth and Brisbane-street towards the appointed spot”.

“The excellent Band of the 51st Regiment performing sacred music, preceded the procession, which was composed of the men of the 21st and 96th Regiments in Garrison, with Colonel Elliott, and the officers in full regimentals; a number of boys, clad in white surplices, walking two and two, some bearing censers with incense, others with wax tapers; the children of the Catholic schools and a number of highly respectable towns-people, Catholics and others, the whole closed by the Rev. Messrs. Therry and Butler in full robes, forming a very imposing cavalcade arrived at the spot on Mount Carmel, the grand ceremony of sanctification was performed by the Reverend Gentlemen above-named, assisted by the usual functionaries and at the conclusion a subscription was collected, which amounted to a considerable sum upwards of £400 as we understand. The day was very fine, and a large concourse of spectators were assembled to witness the ceremony”.

Those who attended this spectacular event could not have imagined that the enterprise was to be a false start. The failure to build St Mary’s was mostly due to the fact that Therry could not secure the necessary funding as he had incurred significant debts with the construction of St Joseph’s. Following Dr. Robert Willson’s appointment as the first Bishop of Hobart Town, he was confronted with the problem of debt and other legal matters which led to a falling out between the two men after Willson arrived in the colony in 1844. During this period, St Joseph’s served as a ‘pro-Cathedral’, a role it held for almost a quarter of a century.

A second attempt at building St Mary’s was made in 1853 when a new foundation stone was ceremonially laid on Wednesday 2 February by Bishop Willson. The church was to be constructed to a design by Mr F. W. Thomas, who was responsible for St Peter’s Hall on Collin’s Street (1855). Regarding the church’s design, ‘The Hobarton Guardian’ commented:

“As the drawings of the church were not sufficiently finished or detailed to exhibit, we cannot give the description of the intended building….”

However, the newspaper obtained certain “particulars” which reveal that the church was in the “decorated period of Christian architecture” and in the shape of a cross, being 203ft in length and included four chapels, naves with south and north aisles, organ chamber, sacristies and north and south porches.

For reasons not entirely clear the building did not progress beyond the laying of the foundation stone and further construction was abandoned.

The possibility of building a cathedral on Harrington Street was revived in 1860 following the donation of £10,000 by Roderic O’Connor, an Irish Australian landowner and public official and one of largest landowners in Tasmania. Though brought up as an unbeliever, shortly before O’ Conner’s death in 1860, he had converted to Catholicism.

On September 12, 1860, yet another foundation-stone (the third) was laid by Bishop Willson for a cathedral designed by William Wardell, a student of Augustus Pugin. Its construction was overseen by Henry Hunter. Once again Hobart’s citizen’s turned out en-mass. The Mercury reported:

“The Corner Stone of the new Cathedral in Harrington-street, was solemnly laid by the Right Rev. Dr. Willson, Bishop of Hobart Town, …. in the presence of a very large number of the citizens and inhabitants of the surrounding districts, there being present during the proceeding nearly three thousand persons. The children of the Catholic Schools assembled, the girls at St. Joseph's, and the boys in St. Peter’s Hall, at one o'clock, and preceded by a band and accompanied by banners, marched to the ground. At half-past two o'clock His Excellency the Governor and Lady Young arrived at the entrance to the ground….”.

The Mercury’s report continued:

“The Rev. Father Ryan delivered a sermon….eloquently remarking upon the antiquity of the ceremonial of blessing matters material, ….The reverend gentleman then specially alluded to the gift of the late Mr. Roderick O'Connor, who knew too well the value of the Divine Inspiration he had received not to respond to it, and who had determined to build a Cathedral to the glory of God; a deed, the knowledge of which should be known and transmitted from parent to child, so long as that Temple should stand, and until the wild vines of Tasmania shall cover its material ruin….”.

Bishop Willson’s return on England in 1865 meant that he did not see the completion of the project. The partly built Cathedral was finally opened on Wednesday 4 July 1866 by Bishop Daniel Murphy. The Cornwall Chronicle reported:

“It is built in the Gothic style of the decorated period. The portions at present built are the north and south transepts, three chancels, and the small chapels. The Lantern Tower now rises from the centre of the transept. When the edifice is completed it will spring from the intersection of the nave, the chancel, and transepts. The height, of the tower or lantern is about a hundred feet…..”.

The report continued:

“The Cathedral was filled with a number of our most influential citizens, including members of both Houses of our Parliament. Exactly at eleven o' clock, the Bishop of Hobart Town, Dr. Murphy, accompanied by the Bishop elect of Adelaide, and the Catholic Clergy, entered the Cathedral, Dr Murphy's train-bearer was the son of Mr Hunter, the architect, who, not withstanding his diminutive size, seemed to be thoroughly up to his work and to appreciate the arduous nature of his duties, and the solemnity of the occasion….”.

The partly completed cathedral’s appearance was indeed magnificent but defects soon became apparent. A committee of architects declared that it was unsafe. In 1876 a public meeting, convened by the Bishop, and presided over by the Governor (Sir F. A. Weld) decided that the building would have to be taken down and re-erected at an additional expenditure of £10 000. Barely 10 years old, St Mary’s never saw “the wild vines of Tasmania …cover its material ruin”.

Despite this setback Hobart’s Catholic community rallied to the challenge of rebuilding and in February 1878, the fourth and final foundation stone of the second St Mary’s Cathedral was ceremonially laid by Bishop Murphy. The story of this building’s construction will be the subject of a further article on Churches of Tasmania.
A detail of a photograph of St Mary's Cathedral c.1869 - Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

St Mary's Cathedral c.1869 - Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

St Mary's Cathedral and convent c.1872 - Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office NS1013-1-1085.

St Mary's Cathedral c.1872 - Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

St Mary's Cathedral c.1872 - Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

The first cathedral under construction - asmanian Archive and Heritage Office

The first cathedral during construction, showing the lantern stage and the temporary buttresses in the planes of the nave walls - Libraries Tasmania


Colonial Times, Tuesday 16 November 1841, page 3
Courier, Thursday 3 February 1853, page 3
Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, Saturday 5 February 1853, page 3
Mercury, Thursday 23 August 1860, page 3
Mercury, Thursday 13 September 1860, page 3
Mercury, Thursday 5 July 1866, page 2
Cornwall Chronicle, Wednesday 25 July 1866, page 3
Mercury, Monday 21 February 1876, page 3
Tribune, Monday 2 October 1876, page 2
Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 12 February 1878, page 3
Mercury, Saturday 31 December 1904, page 2

Planting a faith : Hobart's Catholic story in word and picture by W. T. Southerwood, Speciality Press, 1970.

Eldershaw, P.R, "O'Connor, Roderic (1784–1860)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, Manchester University Press, 1967.


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